Facing the realization of having to give up their own gametes many women face the well-known “genetic grief”, which can also generate fear and frustration in some couples. However, the question of the relationship between a mother and the embryo conceived through egg donation covers a still unknown and very interesting topic for our fertility specialists: epigenetics.
Epigenetics: What is it?
We consider DNA, genes and epigenetics (changes in the genetic function without causing alterations in the DNA) as abstract concepts that have not yet been fully explained. To get a better understanding of epigenetics, we spoke to the Co-director and head of research at the IVF Donostia fertility clinic, Dr Estefanía Rodríguez.
Epigenetics is a field that investigates what changes or effects external or environmental factors can have on gene function without causing the DNA sequence to change.
We are “the result of the interactions between all our genes and their interaction with the environment in which we live, from the time we grow in our mother’s womb until we die. Since we can suffer changes in our DNA throughout our lives, epigenetics plays a very important role,” comments Dr Rodrígues, our specialist for reproductive medicine.
In the time from embryonic development until our death our epigenetics can change either positively or negatively due to nutritional factors such as diet, stress, certain hormonal changes and exposure to toxins can cause.
Epigenetic changes are not only responsible for physical differences and our respective natures, they can also cause diseases such as heart problems, obesity or diabetes.
When can changes in epigenetics occur?
Confirmed by a number of scientific studies, it is known that the lifestyle and environment of the mother-to-be, regardless of whether she is carrying donated or her own embryos, can lead to the development or inhibition of certain functions in the embryo which can be observed in the transmission of hereditary diseases such as diabetes or obesity.
Literally translated, the word epigenetics means ” over and above the genome”. Interestingly, and as we have already seen in the genetic preimplantation test for aneuploidy , each gene contains 2 copies – one from the father’s sperm and one from the mother’s egg. In normal cases, these 2 copies are both read. However, there are about 100 genes where only one of the copies is read. This phenomenon is called “genomic imprinting”.
If these mechanisms do not function properly and the 2 copies are both read or none of them are read, diseases such as Silver-Russell syndrome, Angelman syndrome, Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome or Prader-Willi syndrome can occur.
Furthermore, a human’s genetics are more susceptible to changes in DNA due to environmental factors during certain periods during child development. These include preimplantation, pregnancy, lactation, childhood and puberty.
Epigenetics: What influence does it have on egg donation?
As Dr Rodriguez already explained, we are “the result of our interactions with the environment” and it has been demonstrated that there are fundamental factors that influence the child’s epigenetics, whether or not the gametes were received from donors, that will end up being reflected in the child’s physical characteristics and health. These factors include the uterus and body of the expectant mother and the care and environment in which the child develops during pregnancy.
At the IVF Life Group, we provide detailed information to our patients who wish to undergo egg donation treatment link at one of our clinics and emphasise that the DNA of the donor egg is not the decisive factor influencing the development of the child. What ultimately makes the child the person they will be depends on many crucial factors.
Will the mother-to-be influence the embryo?
The fact that the expectant mother has an influence on the genetics of the embryo growing in her womb is a recognised fact in the field of epigenetics. Numerous scientific studies have shown the effects and consequences that the environment has on the development of the future child, such as eating habits, contact with certain toxins or the mother’s lifestyle.
Modern techniques: Egg and embryo donation
All of this shows that pregnant mothers who undergo fertility treatment with gamete donation will develop a biological and, to a certain degree, also genetic bond with their future children. This proves that they are connected by much more than the womb in which they grew.
These fertility treatments with gamete donation include egg donation and embryo adoption with egg and/or sperm donation:
Essentially, this involves performing in vitro fertilisation with donor eggs. A safe and reliable fertility treatment with high pregnancy rates.
Egg donation is supported by the Spanish Law on Assisted Reproduction, which protects the identity of the donors and the future child.
At IVF-Spain Madrid, we know that many families are concerned about the donor selection process. Therefore, we would like to highlight that we have implemented advanced protocols to be able to select the most suitable donor for each family.
Furthermore, we carry out extensive medical examinations to be able to assess in detail which technique promises the highest success rate for each patient. Other fundamental factors to ensuring the success of the treatment are the advanced technologies used in each treatment, the quality of the laboratory, and the ability to offer a customised treatment according to each patient’s needs.
Embryo adoption has become an effective reproductive solution for patients who wish to receive high-quality embryos without undergoing ovarian stimulation, as it is now possible to ensure an embryo survival rate after devitrification of almost 100%.
This assisted reproduction technique speeds up the duration of the treatment and avoids additional emotional and financial burdens since embryo donation allows the adoption of high-quality embryos donated by other patients who have already fulfilled their dream of creating a family.
Embryonic development: The importance of epigenetics
As already mentioned, epigenetics acts as a bridge between genes and the environment. This means that the environment – without affecting the DNA sequence – can cause certain changes in gene function. These changes, which occur throughout our lives, including during embryonic development, can lead, among other things, to the expression of certain traits or characteristics instead of others.
The different fertility treatment techniques that we offer at IVF-Spain Madrid are the only way for many couples who suffer from infertility or a high risk of passing on genetic diseases to have healthy children. Of course, nothing can be guaranteed, because any action can have unexpected consequences for the children, but this is precisely why the epigenetic changes are the crucial information to determine which genes are expressed in each cell and also the most important indicator for correct embryonic development.